Force in The Body Issue for good reason
The Body Issue: Best of 2010
John Force is standing in his motor coach with his pants around his ankles.
"Look at this knee "
The 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion reaches down, grabs his right kneecap and starts to slide it around like it's resting on jelly. He is 62. His knee looks at least twice that old. For a half-hour he had tried to describe what it looks like. Now he has decided it would be easier to show than merely to tell.
"This kneecap is just floating around. Kinda gross, right?" he says. "This poor leg was already small because I had polio as a kid. Then I hurt the knee playing football in college. Then I did it again goofing off as an adult. Then the Dallas crash just filleted it open."
He runs his fingers over two long, broad scars. The first is below the knee, what was once a gash that cut all the way to the bone. The largest remnant of Force's should-have-been-fatal crash at the Texas Motorplex on Sept. 23, 2007. His body is covered in scars. At the end of a 315.34 mph second-round run, one of his massive rear tires exploded. In an instant Force destroyed two bodies at once, a brand new Ford Mustang and his then-58-year-old self.
In the four years since, he has worked tirelessly to improve both, constantly redesigning the Funny Car and constantly reconstructing his body. He has also overhauled his life, trading in bar tabs for barbells, reintroducing himself to his family and slowing down, albeit only for a few minutes at a time, to educate himself on everything from physics to harmonics to the New Testament.
"They found stuff in this knee that needed to be fixed from what the doctors hadn't done 40 years earlier. Stuff we would've never found if I hadn't had the crash," he says as he continues to slide the kneecap back and forth, causing daughter Courtney to shield her eyes. "And I found stuff inside of me that needed to be fixed, too. Not just the physical stuff, either."
Then he points to the second knee scar, a much more subtle but just as large streak of smoothness above the drifting kneecap. "My fingertips burned off, so they grafted me some new fingertips from that patch above my knee," he says. "I call it my bar code. I told the doc, 'That was the only clean part of this leg left and you had to go put a scar there, too.' But all these scars, they tell a story. They tell my story. That's why I'm showing them to you."
Actually, he's showing them to us all. In ESPN The Magazine's annual Body Issue he has shed his firesuit, putting his 62-year-old body on display among the sculpted 20-somethings from baseball, football, basketball, X Games and the Olympics.
"It takes a lot for a race car driver to take his sponsors off," he jokes, sort of. "But Castrol, Ford, Auto Club, Brand Source, all of those logos you see on all of my clothes, we're in this together. We've won together, we've survived together, we've celebrated and cried together, and we've written this story together. They support my telling of it."
It's a tale literally written in flesh and blood. There are the large marks above and below the right knee. There's the semicircle of raised flesh that runs along the bottom half of the ball joint on his left ankle and a similar seam on the inside of his left wrist. There are smaller marks along the ends of the fingers on his right hand and toes that point in nearly five different directions on his right foot.
"Everyone needs a wake-up call," he said during last month's O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at Charlotte's zMax Dragway. "Mine came sitting in that torn apart Funny Car with my bones sticking out of my ankle and my wrist, my blood shooting all over the place, and my family standing around me crying."
Force remembers nothing about the actual crash and he has only watched the video a handful of times. Initially, he remembered just as little about the aftermath. But as the months have clicked by his brain has recalled more and more. Much of it has been sparked by the sight and touch of his scars. Others have been brought back by examining the sawed-off remnants of the car, which has been resting up against a wall in the team's Indianapolis race shop.
"It's like a Polaroid picture," he says. "If you leave it alone, let it sit there long enough, it gets clearer. All the sudden the colors come in or the image comes into focus, you know? I think your brain stores that up because you can't handle it at the time.
"Now I can handle it. So my brain is rolling it back out, like, 'You crazy old man, this is what you did to yourself!'"
Even the most grizzled drag racing veterans, those with hair that permanently smells like nitrous oxide and crankcase sludge caked under their fingernails, have a hard time talking about what they saw that day.
"We had already had a brutally tough year," says NHRA Top Fuel racer Larry Dixon, citing the March 23, 2007, death of Force's understudy, Eric Medlen. "And then when John's car blew apart at Dallas, it was this sinking feeling like, 'Oh no, is this our Dale Earnhardt moment?'"
It was and it wasn't. Unlike Earnhardt, Force survived, albeit barely, to carry the banner of improving the race cars all while improving himself. Improvements made in the weeks after Medlen's crash likely kept Force alive.
"I broke all four limbs but never even had as much as a headache," he says. "That was all due to the changes we made after Eric got killed."
Force's crash kept those safety-related dominos tumbling into overdrive. The cars received further redesigns, despite resistance from some rivals. Flight surgeons and plane crash analysts were brought in to give everything second and third looks. But nothing received a bigger overhaul than the man himself. He says he's a better father, grandfather, Christian and man. He's also still fast. The NHRA's all-time race winner has kept up a post-crash pace that allowed him to clinch his 15th title one year ago and to make the field for this fall's 10-car NHRA Countdown To The Championship field.
And now he's standing naked in ESPN The Magazine, revealing scars and all in the name of "spreading the gospel of drag racing" and "letting everyone know that you can't ever be too old to improve yourself, even if you should be dead."
That's also why he's bringing what's left of his Dallas car to the team headquarters in Yorba Linda, Calif., where the thousands of visitors who file through the shop each year can gaze upon the wreckage with the same shock and introspection as its owner.
"You look at it and think, 'How am I still here? Why am I still here?'" he says. "You look at it and it becomes obvious that I shouldn't be here. It's obvious that if I'd rolled at a little different angle I would've lost my legs. So I do all I can to keep growing. Keep getting stronger. Keep working on a body that I'm willing to show to you and anybody who picks up your magazine. I'd never been in a gym in my life because they didn't have a bar or a race car in there. Now I'm there all the time."
He pulls up his pants, buckles the belt and claps his hands together.
"This old sequoia tree, I'm 62, but I'm still pretty damn strong," he says. "All those scars and all those rings you'd see if you cut me open, they've made me stronger. Now people can see it for themselves. Maybe it'll make them stronger, too."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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